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Andrew Tate

John Lanchester
Faber & Faber, 592pp

Rcapital.jpg John Lanchester's fourth novel has an odd relationship with history. Capital belongs both to the current millennium - its events unfold, with fussy particularity, between December 2007 and November 2008 - and to another era altogether. In its narrative shape, aesthetic sensibility and moralizing mode, this contemporary triple-decker is as Victorian as Christmas, civic architecture and Gladstone's sideburns.  From the (mildly hubristic) titular echo of Karl Marx's epoch-making work, to the Trollope-style focus on middle-class urbanites on the brink of financial and personal ruin, this is a novel of the recent past forged in the 19th century.

Capital is certainly a self-assured title. The double-meaning - financial and geographical - implies an ambition to represent the metropolis and its complex culture of profit and loss. This is economic terrain that Lanchester has already explored in his non-fiction writing: Whoops! Why everyone owes everyone and no one can pay offered a witty, sobering account of the credit crisis. But can a novel really test such byzantine financial issues without tipping into either worthiness or absurdity? In 1989, Tom Wolfe - another journalist turned fiction-writer - published a literary manifesto, 'Stalking the Billion Footed Beast', in which he championed a return to the journalistic approach of 19th-century writers such as Zola, Dickens and Thackeray. In many ways, Capital fulfils Wolfe's somewhat conservative claim that the future of fiction would be found 'in a highly detailed realism based on reporting ... a realism that would portray the individual in intimate and inextricable relation to the society around him'. Lanchester does a more convincing job than Wolfe managed in his vast, flawed and (whisper it) dreary debut novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities. Capital, in contrast, is never less than engaging across its near 600 pages partly because of its ensemble of lead characters: the novel does not succumb to a temptation to make the Credit Crunch about one man's fall from grace. Instead, the narrative focuses on a number of residents of Pepys Road, the 'ordinary-looking street in South London', a place in which 'almost everything that could have happened .... had happened'. This once modest row of houses designed in the late Victorian period for 'lower-middle-class families willing to live in an unfashionable part of town in return for the chance to own a terraced house'. The ironies of history - and one at which Marx may not have chuckled  - is that the residents of this terraced street are now in global terms, ridiculously wealthy.  Lanchester is good on a supposed national taboo:  the British, allegedly, don't like talking about money. Not true: Capital is full of embarrassing reminders that we love a bit of a chat about house prices.

We encounter a cross-section of modern Londoners: for example, the affluent banker, Roger Yount, 'a man to whom everything in life had come easily', terrified by the prospect of not receiving his Christmas bonus of a million pounds; a teenage football prodigy, Freddy Kamo, who with his father, has left Senegal for the riches of the Premiership; and Petunia Howe, at 82 years-old the sole resident to be born and bred in the street and not to belong to the old or new 'middle' classes. Her house is, however, suddenly worth a vast sum. These figures and their families - people who don't know each other, Pepys Road is a kind of literary anti-Coronation Street - are united by a strange and increasingly sinister campaign of anonymous letters and messages that begin with photographs of their individual houses bearing the message: We Want What You Have.

The strongest precedent for Capital is George Eliot's Middlemarch and like that great achievement of the liberal mind, there are real gaps and evasions. Eliot's novel  didn't really seek to understand poverty or even to represent the poorest members of her society. Similarly, Lanchester doesn't really pursue issues of abject deprivation. The closest that we come to a world beyond anxieties of having to give up a second home or the weekend nanny are in two slightly underdeveloped narrative lines. The story of Quentina, a Zimbabwean asylum seeker, facing bureaucracy, prejudice and misunderstanding strikes me as too significant not to give more weight. Similarly, the sudden and unjust imprisonment of Shahid seems rather too hastily resolved. And, despite the many virtues of the realist mode, fiction that seeks to mirror reality often finds it difficult to critique society.

Lanchester is not an especially punitive author. A number of his wealthiest characters come close to disaster but, in one departure from his Victorian forebears, the writer avoids the tragic mood. There is, however, a trace of scapegoat-mentality in the novel's representation of certain characters (Roger's wife, Arabella, for example, is presented only in relation to her consumerist desire - she is denied the kind of complex, sympathetic interiority granted to her husband). Similarly, a rogue trader is portrayed as anomalous: a man driven by overweening self-regard and resentment rather than one who might be acting on imperatives endorsed by the culture as a whole.

Roger Yount wants to change and he yearns for something better, but one of the implications of his story is that such transformations are rare or impossible until a crisis forces recognition of the limits of capital. Significantly, Lanchester's sizeable cast of supporting characters are frequently people of faith: the smart detective who investigates the bizarre collective stalking of Pepys Road is rational, decent and, perhaps surprisingly in this context, Christian; Quentina has drifted away from the religion of her youth but she dates a man of faith; and, more centrally, Shahid finds renewed strength in his Muslim beliefs.

Capital is not, unlike its Marx-authored namesake, a meticulous socialist critique of exchange value. Mind you, I'm guessing that fewer of us will be reading the great economic tome on the beach this summer than this compelling if rather conventional novel (you can't win them all, Karl).

Andy Tate

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